The first cinematic adaptation of the writing of James Baldwin, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps perplexingly but undeniably fittingly in light of the writers’ artistic omnivorousness, takes its most obvious cues not from Baldwin’s profession but from the profession of its main male character. If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young African-American couple Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), nineteen, and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), twenty-two and working as a sculptor’s apprentice who conjures visions of tragically stilled beauty that the film, if not modeling itself after, at least siphons energy from.
If Beale Street Could Talk by no means avoids the troubling contours of being an African-American in mid-century New York, but it does defray them, or at least deflect them. Its aesthetic orientation is not that of a neo-realist’s aspiration to open a window onto a harsh, unforgiving world, and it exhibits little affinity for the (expected) Hollywood New Wave tricks of filming this city in this time-period in tones and textures that emphasize its grubby, calloused veneer, excoriating the surface-sheen and exposing the rot underneath. Like Fonny’s abstract sculptures – which provide a clue-in to the film’s magisterial tone and introspective magnificence – Jenkins’ vision of Beale Street is (excessively?) mannered, scrubbing away some of the rough edges and burnt ends of lived experience rather than providing an unvarnished portrait.
Rather than a brutal empirical truth – film as objective revelation of racism’s scabrous realities – Jenkins’ poetic truth captures a kind of pantomime of characters performing a more innocent world, African-Americans on the verge of a neoliberal world just trying to live out a pageant of unobstructed time, holding on to the dream of an open, unafflicted world they know to be fragile and fraudulent. It doesn’t feel like a film from either the nihilistic ‘70s or the increasingly cynical ‘10s. Consider the magic moment at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Mrs. Miller’s enraptured gaze is revealed to be the deluded dream of an opiated woman unable to cope with capitalism’s oppression. Without denying the very real terrors of the outside world, Jenkins prefers to hold us in the diamond’s eye, fully aware that sometimes these dreams are all we have. His tender film could and has been accused of sanctimoniousness, but it offers a thoroughly oneiric reverie, not for a forgotten world but for a kind of placid, untouched existence that its protagonists never had.
Initially exploring the continued courtship of the two youths, the comparatively placid early moments are restful and slice-of-life-ish, coasting on youthful insouciance. But they’re never unencumbered. They register a dark sense of instability, as though the characters are doomed to fall prey to a cosmic tragedy that has not yet registered itself at the level of narrative. This impending tragedy is made manifest when Fonny is arrested by a racist police officer (Ed Skrein) for allegedly raping a woman (Emily Rios) who has fled to Puerto Rico. The two families mobilize. Their fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) scour their toolkit of hustles to raise the money to get Fonny out on bail, and Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) takes a trip to Puerto Rico to hear the victim Victoria’s side of the story. And hopefully to convince her to rescind her statement to the police, suspecting that she, as a Latin-American immigrant, was herself bullied into corroborating their story in order to not draw the boot of the racist justice system herself. But, although this particular conflict eventually centers the story, it does not border the contours of a film that registers this moment less as a world-shaking shock than an inevitable happening, one slice in the creeping, dismal lurch of coming into racial awareness as an adult. For this reason, the film holds the conflict at a remove, refusing the (obvious) compulsion to construe racial oppression as an apocalyptic aberration rather than a quotidian omnipresence.
Perhaps fully knowing the omnipresence of racial oppression, and aware of its limits as a film to combat them, Jenkins’ formal architecture is curiously ambivalent about how openly it should be shaken by the drama in front of it. This seeming stone-face has been the film’s major criticism, critics suggesting that Jenkins’ cinematic style is too composed and perfectly poised to expose the unsteady posture of race in the United States. At times, this means that Jenkins’ formal attitude toward his material veers toward an almost scriptural respect, both to Baldwin’s text and to the dream he’s conjured. This is somehow both fitting for a writer whose texture is so famously spiritual and somewhat dishonest to Baldwin’s own roiling tensions and contradictory energies. At points in his writing, Baldwin both holds transcendental desires on a pedestal and makes a travesty of classical idealism, acknowledging terrifying truths without denying dreams that are much more than mere illusions. He disorients the melodrama without dismissing it. Jenkins is much more interested in the implications of embodying a more classical melodrama with African-American characters, a forlorn fable of sensual ravishment, one in which their dreams of togetherness are elevated to a transcendent plane even as Jenkins eyes the ways in which the world conspires to ensure those dreams are forestalled. He clearly worships these characters, this material, this world, and the chance to hold onto them, to ensconce them away from the real world of the late ‘10s which seems to be being ripped apart around us. With Baldwin’s writing, however, those never seemed like mutually exclusive impulses.
For instance, yellows, oranges, and reds suffuse the film, but always in hues of radiant gold and fiery orange, flaring with the characters’ passions and dousing them in a sepulchral sense of glorious divinity. It’s as though every figure appearing in the film is self-consciously playing out an eternal theater, readying themselves for transcendental status, elevated above and beyond their moment and into the annals of History with a capital H. The mood of this Beale Street is near-divine myth, a steadfastly classical portrait of black love striving against the dying of the light, characters encroaching on the unknown, on the Total, holding to a sense of eternity when their present is being destroyed. Rather than, say, the malarial, jaundiced yellow of a once-gilded world or the rusted orange of a degraded, pale shadow of a former self, there’s no irony in Jenkins’ color. The color is his cinematographic embellishment of his characters’ desires and dreams to play out the Hollywood melodrama classically denied to them.
And the film makes an extraordinary case for this sincere devotion. At the level of text, the characters strive simply to survive, and to be together, but the film’s texture suggests that this act alone is Herculean, a bold and declamatory rebuke against the absence of black love in popular consciousness. They traipse through a New York City of carefully curated streets, plastically emoting not unlike Terrence Malick’s young-lovers-on-the-run Badlands. But Malick’s orientation toward the fable-like abstraction of his teenagers’ demented play critically evacuates them of interiority, suggesting that they’ve replaced their ungovernable humanity with flat-lined ennui. Beale Street emphatically dismisses such cynicism. Malick’s young lovers try to escape the limits of the world around them, they only end up playing out doomed roles in a theater that they can’t quite grasp the borders of; they end up sculpting themselves to fit into the world they pretend to resist. They lean into roles they seem destined for without much hesitance or resistance, either learning to play “types” or else entirely incapable of the self-consciousness which would undergird “learning” in the first place. For the characters in If Beale Street Could Talk, love – undying love – is insurmountable, and the world can’t corrupt it.
That doesn’t mean If Beale Street Could Talk is unquestioning or incurious, just that it aspires not to capture the offhand weave of reality or puncture its fable so much as to breathe life into it. The film’s very title suggests that this is the film that the streets themselves – the reality of the world – can’t quite express at the level of manifest content, but dreams for nonetheless; that it is both a genuine vision of a marginalized dream and one that is always fabulistic, always in the realm of the possible rather than the actual. There’s certainly precedent in Baldwin for this tone: Baldwin’s religious background primed him for a life of literature infused with hope, hard-hitting love that took the form of a refusal to give up on white America. And, despite his fervent critique of mainstream Hollywood cinema for emphasizing abstract horrors (namely, The Exorcist) over realistic terrors (of, for instance, social anomie, African-American abjection, and misogynist and heteronormative discipline), Baldwin wasn’t by any means a realist in an ascetic, dogmatic sense. In No Name in the Street, for instance, he meditates on walking down a Southern street and feeling like he’s been thrown into an absurdist film, finding cinema a more accurate representation of his life at this point than the other way around. He suggests his awareness of cinema as a way of thinking life, not seeing cinema as a failure to admit the harsh, chaotic texture of existence but as a way of considering the performative absurdity and theatricality of reality itself.
Those titles are telling. Baldwin has no name in the street, because America’s streets weren’t built for him, much as America’s films deny men and women like him individual names in lieu of broad, totalizing stereotypes. But Baldwin still accepts that black people live and dream in those streets, live in and dream with those films, that we can still ponder what it would be like “if” beale street could talk, and if films could be made for beale street to talk with and through. The film’s very title suggests that this is the film that the streets themselves – the reality of the world – can’t quite express at the level of manifest content but dream for nonetheless; that the film, and film, is both a genuine vision of a marginalized wish and one that is always fabulistic, always in the realm of the possible rather than the actual.
Much like Baldwin, then, Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk ponders the duality of cinema which both gives-off potential names to draw on (and dreams to dream) and conspicuously and routinely fails, a statement that is true both for Baldwin and Jenkins. Quite like Todd Haynes, Wong Kar-wai, and Douglas Sirk, Jenkins’ understanding of reality emphasizes the interplay of sculptured and sculpting social cues and codes and the resistant desires that rebuke these codes, artistic mediums that are tools to marginalize and that become canvasses for overturning and debating that oppression, less monolithic monuments to oppression than tortured flows we struggle within and against.
Admittedly, and, at the risk of repeating myself, this has been the core of the complaints about this film, Jenkins’ work explores these questions at the risk of embalming them in the weight of its awareness of history, and within the shadow of its looming sense of Baldwin as a figure that channeled the tumultuous weave of that history into poetry. As mentioned, part of Baldwin’s genius is his ability to analyze the unflappable weight of oppression while still radiating the psychic energy of untrammeled minds that puncture that oppression, and Jenkin’s film is comparatively tempered, almost sacrosanct in its reverential attitude toward the characters (lacking many of the ambiguities in their affection, and the uncertainties in their moral vistas, present in the novel) and society at large. Comparatively, Todd Haynes always seems aware that his sensuous visuals camoflague as much as they disclose about the characters’ souls, and Douglas Sirk similarly erects his visual scaffolding not only as founts for personal expression but prisons the characters cannot quite escape, suggesting that their avenues for expressing discontent with social systems are also inextricably weaved into those social systems to begin with. Jenkins is somewhat more unequivocal in his affection for these characters, and in the ability of his images to ensconce this affection to a high cinematic plane, which means that his film is less able to temper its heaving sensuality with cross-contaminations and intimations of doubt.
It is more content to just be the dream, in other words, and for that reason, the film is at its best when it exposes the work that goes into that dream, when it thinks dreams as confrontations with reality rather than escapes from it. Just look at the film’s most obvious formal gesture, its copious use of direct address, where the characters speak directly to the screen. Typically, that maneuver is a shorthand for displaying a film’s hubristic self-awareness of its own filmic-ness, laundering its observations in a self-reflexive instability that demands that we, the audience, take account for the fact that we are watching a fictional “movie”. This sense is present in If Beale Street Could Talk, but without the immediate, pedantic sting usually associated with the gesture in the post-Tarantino generation. The petty irony is removed in service of far more complicated, genuinely brutal realizations. Fonny and Tish routinely look at the camera and speak their thoughts to us in monologue, implicitly exhibiting a theatrical hyper-consciousness about the drama around them. But there’s no cynical superiority, no sense that they really can transcend their film with an awareness that they see beyond its fourth-wall. In If Beale Street Could Talk, their looks are open-ended, unbecoming, entirely evacuated of hatred and secrecy; they seem only to wish that we accept their desires, all of their desires, brought to light in the dark of the movie theater.
Truth be told, whether or not Jenkins’ film evokes Baldwin is less important than how it mobilizes the ideas pregnant in Baldwin’s writing, or barring that, whether it finds its own ideas. But Jenkins’ style in these moments does phenomenally evoke and extend Baldwin’s own occasional awareness that his life had been transformed into a movie, his own existence a theater always to-be-looked-at. What the characters do here is what Baldwin did: recognize that they’re being looked at, and that they can’t escape this theatricality, and that this realization both destabilizes the drama (by thinking to us) and elevates it, understanding the way in which their dreams, and the pathways to achieve them, are interlocked with a cinema that is both dreamlike and inhospitable to those dreams. Typically, this is a quietly implicating gesture, but in If Beale Street Could Talk, it seems a bitter wish, much like Baldwin’s famous sense of insurgent, invasive, even hostile love, his refusal to disown white America: the film says that we – Baldwin, Jenkins, and Black America – still love film, and we demand to be heard, and loved, by it too.
This sense of address still sometimes carries with it a somewhat monumentalist aura, a sense that we are watching a work whose characters feel more entombed in a drama than alive in the traditional sense, and this still reeks smaller havoc on the film, despite its often wondrous sense of texture. In one scene, however, the film’s strengths and flaws are clarified in a truly heartrending miniature drama, one where many films worth of insinuations and intimations channel suddenly into a truly epochal few minutes. In a flashback where one of Fonny’s older friends, Daniel, played by Brian Tyree-Henry, returns from prison, the film suddenly and unexpectedly lowers its guard by raising it, desperately hiding its worries even as they break through anyway, thereby clarifying by way of contrast what the film otherwise so devoutly holds at a remove, as if frightened of the implications of admitting.
Where the film truly exposes itself for us, revealing its visual schema not as hubristic insulation from the world but as a protective shield in a wounded, wondering world, not an overly-composed transcendence but a genuine fear. Thus the cloistered but confessional, revealing but close-to-the-vest texture of If Beale Street Could Talk, might unveil a portrait of sexual budding and spiritual epiphany where the rogue embers of release that seem to escape that shield drive into contrast how effective it is at holding us away from the full truth, and how its effectiveness is inexorably linked to its restrictions. It isn’t openly permissive to chaos, but scenes like this expose a film that understands that chaos is always ever-present, and inescapable.